Around the Jewish World with Canadian Aliyah on the Rise, Nefesh B’nefesh Plane Set to Fly

It used to be that so few people made aliyah from Canada that almost no one paid attention to them when tallying immigration totals from North America. But times are changing. With a wave of Canadians preparing to move to Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps North American Jews make aliyah, has chartered an airplane to help take them to the Jewish state.

This summer a plane will leave Toronto for Israel with more than 250 new immigrants. They will represent a cross section of the Canadian Jewish community, including single people and families, college students and seniors, observant and secular Jews.

The Canadian plane is one of at least seven immigrant flights scheduled to leave North America during 2005. Another planeload may leave from Toronto in December.

“It’s a breakthrough, milestone event in Canadian Jewish history,” said Nefesh B’Nefesh spokesperson Charley Levine, who is based in Jerusalem. “Up until now, as with certain other things in life, Canadian aliyah has always been an afterthought or a postscript to what’s going on in the United States. It’s always, ‘These are the numbers. Oh yeah, plus Canada.’

“We see the summer of 2005 as being a real watermark where that’s going to change,” he added.

According to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Toronto-based Israel Aliyah Center, which caters to Canadians and pushed for the Toronto flight, 3,000 people made aliyah from North America in 2004. Of them, 10 percent — or 312 people — came from Canada.

That’s a significant number, given that “there are only 300,000 Canadian Jews, versus 5 million American Jews,” said Dina Gidron, the center’s regional director for central and western Canada.

It’s expected that more than 400 Canadians will move to Israel by the end of 2005. Of Canadians making aliyah, two-thirds usually come from Toronto and another 30 percent from Montreal.

Gidron attributes the rising Canadian aliyah to birthright israel, the free, 10-day Israel trip that was made available to young Canadian adults several years ago. Many who go on birthright get “bitten by the Israel bug” and consider moving there, Gidron says.

Another factor influencing aliyah is the Israeli government’s offer of free college tuition for up to three years. In addition, the aliyah figures include some people whose parents moved away from Israel, but who are now returning to their roots.

Nefesh B’Nefesh, which began in 2002, has made it easier for North Americans to make aliyah: The organization provides new olim with financial assistance, employment resources, social services and guidance through the bureaucratic maze.

The group helps to “knock down red tape, knock down bureaucracy and make lower hurdles for any North American Jew who wants to come on aliyah,” as Levine puts it.

Amir and Nicole Bem and their four young children plan to be on this summer’s flight from Canada. The Bems, who live in Toronto and run several Internet portals related to women’s health issues, are moving to Ra’anana.

They can’t wait to get there.

“We feel that Israel can provide a stronger Jewish foundation for our children,” said Amir Bem, 42. “There is an inexplicable, deep sense of meaning to life in Israel if you are a practicing Jew.

“We are excited to be living in a place where every child, from secular to religious, runs around excitedly in costumes on Purim and not on Halloween, and where the streets are hushed on Yom Kippur,” he said.

Bem, who trekked through the Himalayas and across Southeast Asia with his wife before they became parents, says he also welcomes Israelis’ focus on children and family.

He said he and his wife chose Ra’anana for several reasons: The many English speakers there will help reduce the anticipated culture shock, the weather is great and the beach is close by.

Immigrants from North America can have a positive impact on the Jewish state, he said.

“North Americans will exert some cultural influence in Israel with respect to such things as higher standards of customer service, a greater level of civility and maybe even improved driving etiquette,” Bem said.

Genny Van Der Elst of Vancouver Island, B.C., also hopes to be on the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight this summer. Van Der Elst, 24, who comes from a traditional Jewish family, has taught English in Korea and danced at a ballet school in Belgium.

Her first trip to Israel was in 2003, with birthright. She later returned to Israel on her own, spending six months in Haifa as an assistant with Magen David Adom. It wasn’t until she returned to Canada after that experience that Van Der Elst realized she now considered Israel home.

She plans to learn Hebrew through an Ulpan program in Jerusalem, then wants to study at university and work with orphans.

“There are difficulties there and different struggles,” Van Der Elst said. There’s a “language barrier and so many different things that you don’t have over here in Canada. But there is a sense of accomplishment that you have as a Jew when you’re there.”

Levine of Nefesh B’Nefesh thinks Canadian aliyah is about to enter its second phase. The first began at Israel’s birth, and the second, he said, is starting this summer with the flight from Toronto.

This new wave of immigration “represents a much higher awareness and enthusiasm” than organizations like his have seen until now, he said.

“There’s no better way to build a bridge between Israel and Canada than through this wonderful kind of newcomer who has so much to contribute in terms of education, contribution to the economy and contribution to the democratic values,” Levine adds. “And if you’re talking multiculturalism, Israel is the mother of all multiculturalism. The Canadian experience with that will resonate in Israel and have a wonderful role to play here.”

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